For Jono, a slum dweller from one of Jakarta’s poorest neighborhoods, the offer of a job on a boat taking foreign tourists fishing was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
Little did he know that it would land him right in the middle of a major international controversy.
In a recent interview with the Jakarta Globe, Jono, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said his boat left from North Jakarta’s Muara Angke Port one evening in October 2010.
Though the crew was unaware, 99 passengers, including several children, were waiting to board the ship from a fleet of several small fishing boats waiting about two kilometers off the coast of Tangerang to the west.
“I didn’t know where the ship was heading. I was hired only to do menial jobs, such as preparing coffee or cooking noodles,” said Jono, who is aged in his 40s.
The next day, to his surprise, the captain asked him and a fellow crewman to continue the journey and keep the boat on its charted course, while he and the two other crew members returned to Jakarta on a smaller boat to pick up another group of passengers.
“He also told me that we would arrive at our destination within four hours and that there would be people there to pick up all the passengers and take care of them,” Jono said.
He added that he had no choice but to continue the journey, because the passengers, whom he described as “Middle Eastern looking,” forced him to captain the boat even though he refused to at first.
“They took turns standing by my side and watching where I was steering the boat. They wouldn’t even let me use the toilet,” he said.
As they neared land, the boat was intercepted by an Australian Navy patrol.
“Suddenly there were Navy soldiers and armed men boarding our vessel. I wasn’t aware that we were already surrounded by small Navy boats and I was shocked to see that there was a huge Navy ship towering over our vessel,” Jono said.
He noticed the passengers immediately dump their “expensive-looking” mobile phones in the sea. But what surprised him even more was that none of the passengers looked scared about having been intercepted and boarded by a naval patrol.
“They even looked relieved and thankful, as if they’d arrived safe and well at their destination,” Jono said.
As soon as they reached the shore, which Jono later learned was the Australian territory of Christmas Island, they were all taken to a detention center where their data was taken down and they underwent health checks.
“I still had no idea at that time that I would be charged with a criminal offense,” he said.
“I later learned about it in the detention center when I met other Indonesians, about 100 of them. Apparently they’d gone through the same experience. We’d been tricked into smuggling people.”
He said the other Indonesian detainees were tricked with similar job offers that they readily agreed to, believing they were simply taking tourist groups to islands in Indonesian waters.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to go if I knew that we were heading to a foreign country. At least I know I would have needed travel documents to do so,” Jono said.
He was held in custody for two months on Christmas Island before being transferred to another detention center in Darwin on the Australian mainland. At this new center, Jono attended English classes and sports programs to pass the time.
While in Darwin, he met a few times with officials from the Indonesian consulate, Australian police and immigration authorities, all of whom, he claimed, asked him to plead guilty in order to speed up the legal process.
“But I wouldn’t admit to it. I was innocent because I didn’t know we were going to Australia,” he said.
In April 2011, Jono was transferred to the Silverwater Correctional Center and later Long Bay Correctional Complex, both in New South Wales. While awaiting trial for almost a year at the facilities, he met four Indonesian minors. He was also visited by Indonesian government officials once every few months.
“During one visit they asked how I was doing. What else could I say other than I was really stressed,” Jono said.
He added that some of the Indonesian inmates who had initially claimed to be innocent got so frustrated with the lengthy legal process and the language barrier that they gave in and pleaded guilty just to get it over with.
Among the witnesses at his trial were six passengers who had boarded his ship. All of them said he was the captain of the boat and had attempted to smuggle them to Australia.
Jono’s lawyer, Lisa Hiariej, said he was eventually acquitted in February, after she and her team presented evidence that he was poor and convinced the court he was not part of a people-smuggling ring.
Lisa, who is licensed to practice in Australia, said that if convicted, a people smuggler could face up to three years in jail. Conviction for a second offense, even if a suspect was previously acquitted, carries a mandatory eight-year sentence.
Jono said he hardly got any assistance from the Indonesian consulate in Sydney, only having contact with them when he was processing an emergency travel document for his return to Indonesia.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the Globe last week that all claims about negligence on the part of Indonesian government representatives abroad should be made replete with the officials’ names and the details of the offenses they were accused of committing.
“I was recently in Darwin and I know for a fact how they routinely visit our fellow citizens who are taken into custody in Australia,” Marty said.
In 2002, the two governments began the Bali Process — a bilateral agreement to push for greater cooperation to combat human trafficking, including intelligence sharing and using law enforcement to go after smuggling networks.
During a hearing in May of House of Representatives Commission I, which oversees foreign and defense affairs, Marty said 59 percent of all Indonesian boat crews detained in Australia from 2008 to 2012 for alleged involvement in people smuggling activities were minors.
The minister said that as of May, 133 adult detainees had been released from Australian prisons, while Lisa said that there were still around 200 adult Indonesians in Australian prisons for people-smuggling offenses.
Marty said in June that there were 56 Indonesians jailed in Australia who were believed to be minors and whose cases were being reviewed by the Australian Attorney General’s Department. Of those 56, 22 have launched appeals.
Lisa said the Indonesian government needed to do more to raise awareness among coastal communities here about the ploys used by people smugglers.
This, she said, would “prevent people from being lured into fake jobs, like transporting foreign tourists on a fishing trip.”